Essay: Modern Tech, Fine Art and an Online Practice

Post pandemic the idea of maintaining an online feels like a third limb of my art practice, but one i’m becoming quite fond of!

This essay addresses how my practice has come to revolve around digital worlds and social media, both in aesthetic and methodology. Claiming Instagram posts and reddit threads as critical components of a practice seems mad, but as the lines between digital and real blur, determining the value in digital space is important.


How have modern technologies changed the way we create and experience art?

When I began studying fine art at RMIT 5 years ago, one of the rules that almost every teacher repeated when it came to referencing artists, is that it couldn’t be through Instagram. An artist needed to be talked about by a journal or a gallery, or at the very least have their own website, with several teachers saying “anyone can be an artist on Instagram”. This struck me as a strange contrast to the line of thought taught at art schools, that we are all artists by virtue of our practice, that somehow now that we had applied, paid and been approved by an institution, we are granted credibility. Since starting I have seen a softening of this opinion, with the pandemic pushing many to re-evaluate their stance on online forums, and newer artists ascend through art institutions into positions of power, bringing with them more modern ideas of what constitutes an artist and art practice. My goal with this essay isn’t praise instagram as an app or meta as a company, instead I want to look at the way that art’s value is transmuted through its transition into digital online space, how art displayed online interacts with the environment it is displayed in, and how digital work finds its value. Throughout this essay I will be talking about my physical artwork and my online presence as equal facets of my practice.

Where you encounter art has always had an impact on its value, monetarily, conceptually, and socially. Prior to the inception of the internet and social media, anyone interested in art would need to be informed about the art world. Knowing where the galleries are, who runs them, and being involved in networks and groups that discuss art. This dynamic meant the balance of power was in the hands of people who curated art spaces. With the introduction of social media sites like instagram, audiences began to gain more power, as they became the lens through which outside parties would experience these spaces (MacDowall et al. 2021). I felt my practice needed to reflect this shift in power, growing my own audience online as a form of presenting my work, and subverting the traditional gallery structure.

In 2021 I began using holographic paper, this paper refracts light and creates a rainbow effect across the surface. For my series Reflektor I would collect collage elements and scan them at high quality, then screen print them onto the holographic paper. Thematically the work referred to the processes of looking and being looked at, enforced through materiality, imagery, and through the process of documenting and sharing the process of creation online. Each image featured figures looking at each other, away from each other, and inwards through introspection. The reflective material surface acts as a distorted mirror, the viewer’s gaze is pulled past the figures at their own refracted reflection. The act of sharing and documenting work gives the viewer, If they choose to follow along, a chance to engage in an empathetic experience of creation, as they watch and interact with me while I bring the piece to fruition. Images that elicit empathy have been shown to draw the highest rates of engagement, a study of the most successful artwork posts on instagram confirmed ‘the audience feels that they are the artist’s friends and participate in the artist’s life and creation’ (Kang, Chen & Kang 2019). This empathy driven interaction creates a dynamic where artworks success is driven by an empathetic relationship to the audience. This becomes the central source of value in the work, instead of its conceptual grounding.

To frame the online interaction between creator and audience as a purely constructive display of empathy would neglect the potential complexities of such a one directional, or parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships are not something that is unique to the internet, and in fact have been a part of the conversation surrounding media personalities since the 1950s. Horton and Wohl (1956) examined the phenomenon of actors addressing an audience via TV or radio, outlining how this interaction creates an illusion of familiarity for the viewer, through emotive language and framing devices, coining it a parasotional interaction. This was later expanded into the concept of a parasocial relationship, which is a more adequate description of the lengths and depths of these relationships, and has only become more relevant with the introduction of social media’s ability to let the viewers reach out to the persona en masse (Riles & Adams 2021). While building a following on various media platforms and experimenting with how I would present myself online, there are techniques and tactics that have been more successful and fulfilling to my practice. Framing devices in TV and radio would be factors such as, is the persona facing the audience and addressing them directly, is emotive language being used to connect with the audience, or is rhetoric employed to garner empathy (Horton & Wohl 1956). These framing devices still exist in an online environment, but in my personal practice I hope to centre the artwork as the central figure with which the audience relates, this means how I frame my work online Is different and garners different responses. Commonly the most useful tool is presenting artwork in a physical context, this could be showing the artwork in the studio, helping to convey the artist experience. Presenting the work in a gallery space conveys a more commercial or professional element to the interaction. This framing is useful as it connects the artwork with a physical space in the real world, helping to maintain the artworks aura through a connection to materiality. The artist’s presence in the presentation of the work is still also important, this can be through an image showing the artist with the artwork, or the voice of the artist accompanying a video. In my own practice these two facets are realised through constant video documentation of the creation process, compiling these slices into videos paired with personal voice over in an aim to connect the artwork with myself as the artist. Kaźmierczak (2021) contends that while documentation of performance is innately facile and fictitious, embracing this as an inevitability lets us realise an effective archiving of artworks. While Kaźmierczak was referring to performance art, In the age of social media artists can now choose to perform their practice online, with the documentation being synonymous with a performance.

Walter Benjamin (1936) coined the term “aura” in relation to artworks, he thought the reproduction of art through mechanical processes destroyed an essentialness, and its links to tradition and materiality. His definition also refers to a sense of distance, an ability to connect with the object, likening it to our ability to connect with elements of the natural world. The contemporary conversation surrounding an artworks aura is still in some instances to mechanical reproduction, though this is dampened by the legitimisation of printmaking and photography as viable and valuable art practices. Instead it is the digital realm that suffers the brunt of this conversation. With the benefit of hindsight these distinctions between what does and does not have an aura seems to be a difference between the known and the unknown, a warmth and respect for what is known, and a feeling of distance from that which seems alien to us. As someone who grew up with access to all types of technology at my fingertips, I can attest to the feelings of familiarity and warmth for digital spaces. Specifically the web 1.0 websites of the late 90s and early 2000s, the specific design sensibilities or lack thereof, and the boutique nature of hundreds of handmade sites. These facets came together in a feeling of community, with each page governing itself, and creating a unique experience. I could attempt an argument that through the transition into web 2.0 and the centralisation of the internet by several tech companies, a sense of aura was lost, but it would be a discredit to future generations who will undoubtedly find their own sense of aura among the world left to them. Amorim & Teixeira (2020) argue that instead of losing an aura through transition into the online world, a new aura is created, but is separate from the aura of the material artwork. This seems a fairer assessment of the functions of these transitions, that any medium given time to be understood and embraced can form an auratic connection with an audience. Neither of these readings give credit to work made within the purposed auraless new medium, Benjamin refers to print and photographic mediums almost exclusively as reproductive tools and not generative. Amorim & Teixeria consider the digitals role only to represent physical artworks when they otherwise cannot be reached. Artists such as Molly Soda centre their practice around the experience of the digital world, simultaneously critiquing and embracing the ways in which an individual is compelled to be a representative for their own image or brand. Soda’s work is born and exists online, and is generally exhibited thusly, though it has been exhibited through printed screenshots and video installations, I would argue this creates a loss of the digital works aura. Proulx (2016) details how youth who have grown up with social media show heightened drive to perform, seemingly from an intense awareness of how they are perceived, which has led to prolific use of the self image as a tool of empowerment. The portrayal of the artwork is most in touch with its aura in the context of the social media site, this context of space means the viewer connects and associates the messages with their own personal experience.

My work Halls of Galaria (2021) is an online interactive experience using the blogging platform WordPress. The work consisted of several pages of images, text, and navigation options the viewer can use to move through several branching paths. This project was live the entire time it was being worked on, so as people returned, new wings of the fictional Galleria would open. I wanted the creation and installation of the work to at all times be moving, this project was aesthetically and functionally inspired by web 1.0 design, text based adventures, and the online art gallery wolfman museum. However a particular incident with an album release by Kanye West is what inspired the fluidity, after releasing his album Pablo, Kanye kept changing tracks while the album was still hosted online. I felt this act of modifying an already released work was a perfect reflection on how new technologies had changed the traditionally immutable relationship between artist and artwork. Halls of Galleria exists on, and could only be properly experienced through the medium of the internet. I believe the aura of the work is created through a friction of web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies, as well as the novelty of discovering a unique space on the internet that serves no explicit commercial or social purpose beyond entertainment.

Polaine (2005, p. 1) talks about the established conservitive art galleries’ lack of interest in interactive media, stating that it is diametrically opposed to the interests of the fine art institutions desire to be a grounds for the display of divine art objects. Interactive media can be seen as lowbrow and populist due to its accessibility, and ease of digital replication, this view disregards the unique individual experiences that can be had in an interactive space. This denial of an emerging practice feels in line with the eb and flow of the art world, as we see conceptual art is now ubiquitous, where a century ago it wasn’t. I believe we are coming to a nexus soon with interactive art, Polaine’s paper was written in 2005, in the 15 years since interactive art installations have become more embraced. Often seen in the form of pop up experiences backed by the conceptual work of an artist such as RANDOM INTERNATIONAL’s Rain Room or Nick Ennis’s Imaginaria. Though these adult playroom style interactive works have found commercial and critical success, there is still a lag for work in the digital realm finding its place in the greater fine art world. Video games would be the obvious champion of this interactive art space, though are also shunned by the fine art world due to a perceived tackiness, and commercial focus. Smuts (2005) positions video games as a sister medium to the moving image, but with an element of performance with the player participating in the creation of an experience. While Halls of Galleria is not a video game, it aesthetically and functionally borrows tools from the medium. The focus of the work is the user experience, to create a playground online that pushes back to the largely homogenised experience of the online environment we find today. There is no reason that the work could not be documented or otherwise captured and placed in a gallery setting. I believe this would destroy the work’s aura, in cutting it off from the internet and the viewer’s ability to share and explore in their own time, an organic functionality is lost.

The internet, modern computing power and new social forums have all fundamentally changed the way we view and create art, the real discussion is to what degree. Some will vehemently reject the internet’s influence at all levels of involvement, while some embrace it to the exclusion of all other mediums. Digital work, often maligned for a lack of aura, I contend is too new for anyone to assert that as an absolute fact, as how we connect with art is a reflection of the time we live in. Interactivity is slowly being embraced throughout the fine art world, but might be too ephemeral for it to become the speculative asset big fine art demands. My practice lives in these worlds, using the internet and the digital as a medium to foster community, conversation, and creativity.

References

Kang, X, Chen, W & Kang, J 2019, ‘Art in the Age of Social Media: Interaction Behaviour Analysis of Instagram Art Accounts’, Informatics, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 52.

MacDowall, L, & Budge, K 2021, ‘Art after Instagram : Art Spaces, Audiences, Aesthetics’, Taylor & Francis Group.

Polaine, A 2005, ‘Lowbrow, High Art: Why Big Fine Art doesn’t understand interactivity’, In The First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology.

Smuts, A 2005, ‘Are video games art?’, Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 3, no. 6.

Riles, J.M, and Adams, K 2021, ‘Me, myself, and my mediated ties: Parasocial experiences as an ego-driven process’ Media Psychology, vol. 24, pp. 792-813.

Brown, N 2019, ‘Autonomy : The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism’, Duke University Press, Durham.

Proulx, M 2016, ‘Protocol and Performativity: Queer selfies and the coding of online identity’, Performance Research, vol. 21, pp.114-118.

Amorim, J.P, and Teixeira, L.M.L 2021, ‘Art in the Digital during and after Covid: Aura and Apparatus of Online Exhibitions’, Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 12, pp.1-8.

Benjamin, W 1935, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Kaźmierczak, M 2021, ‘The Contingency and Fiction of Performance Art Documentation: Theory and Practice’, Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, vol. 40, pp.188-197.